A little more than a decade ago, U.S. Army Capt. Ben Kotwica landed in Taji, Iraq, a sandy city 20 miles north of Baghdad. It was April 2004 and Operation Iraqi Freedom II was humming along. The situation on the ground was calm, at least for a while.
Then in May, the Mahdi Army attacked Sadr City. In November, Marines entered Fallujah. From the cockpit of an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, Kotwica was often right in the middle of it all, zipping overhead at low altitudes and providing reconnaissance or cover fire. By the time he returned home in March 2005, he had logged more than 1,000 combat hours.
“I didn’t want to be in combat,” Kotwica said. “But I wasn’t averse to pulling triggers and doing that kind of mission.”
The mission Kotwica faces now is trivial by comparison. His tasks are no longer matters of life and death but of touchbacks and hang times, wedges and coverage schemes. As the new special teams coordinator of the Washington Redskins, he has been tasked with turning around what was statistically the worst unit in the league last season, according to a formula created by Football Outsiders.
Kotwica’s job has changed since 2004, but he brings the same approach and attitude to coaching that he brought to his role as an officer in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Korea and Iraq: Technical expertise. Meticulous attention to detail. Open communication. And above all else, a type of firm, confident demeanor befitting a military veteran.
“You do notice it,” linebacker Akeem Jordan said. “I wouldn’t say he’s intimidating. I’d say he has a leader’s presence. There’s not too many times that you would doubt his judgment.”
‘I wanted to do a cool job’
Before he was a coach or an officer, Kotwica was a starting linebacker and team captain at Army. He led the Black Knights to their only 10-win season and most recent Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 1996, and it was during his time at West Point that he also began to think about life after graduation.
“Really my thought was if I was going to be in the Army, I wanted to do a cool job,” he said. “And I thought flying would be pretty darn cool. So that’s what I did.”
After a year coaching at West Point’s preparatory school, Kotwica enrolled in flight school. Free to choose his preferred type of aircraft, he picked the Apache, an attack helicopter, rather than the Black Hawk, which is more commonly used for transporting troops. Or, in his words: “I went guns.”
Kotwica was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina before being deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he spent seven months as a platoon leader. He then returned home briefly before moving on to Korea for six months, and later Iraq.
Kotwica is careful not to reveal too many details about his time in Taji. When asked about his role in the context of the war, he says only that, “there were a variety of mission sets that we executed in Iraq.” Sometimes he served as convoy security or air security for VIPs visiting the country. Sometimes he flew to gather reconnaissance or help identify targets during a conflict on the ground. And yes, sometimes, he had to pull the trigger in battle.
“The most rewarding mission was helping the guys on the ground,” Kotwica said. “When we did pull triggers, I never looked at it as an opportunity to take somebody else’s life. I really looked at it as an opportunity to save our soldiers’ lives.”
Kotwica estimates he was in the air six days a week, working toward objectives that took anywhere from two to five hours to complete. He learned to navigate a city like Baghdad at low altitudes, sometimes dodging wires and towers in shade or darkness. And he experienced the challenges of a nonlinear battlefield, where there are no clearly marked boundaries between clusters of allied troops and the enemy.
In March 2005, Kotwica and the 1st Cavalry Division were sent home, marking the end of both his final tour and his eight-year military career. Kotwica retired with three medals and a Bronze Star.
“I loved the military. I really, really enjoyed my time there,” Kotwica said. “But my time was up.”
‘How can I help you get better?’
Kotwica grew up on the south side of Chicago, the son of a military veteran who went on to become a state police officer. His parents ran what he called a “disciplined household,” where everyone had responsibilities and every action had consequences.
It was here, long before Kotwica accepted his scholarship offer to West Point, that he developed his unique demeanor. The military molded his personality, but the roots were in his childhood and how he was raised by his parents.
“I think that I’ve always had somewhat of a, I don’t know if the word is mature, or certain demeanor about me,” he said.
That demeanor, among other things, always made Kotwica think he might be a successful coach. Even in Pop Warner leagues as a kid, coaches would pinpoint him as a future leader. “Hey Ben,” they’d say. “You might want to look at this coaching thing. I think you’d be pretty good at it.”
When Kotwica returned home from Iraq in 2005, he received an email and an invitation from then-Army coach Bobby Ross, asking if he’d like to coach at the academy’s preparatory school. Kotwica worked as the defensive coordinator there for a season before later jumping up to the NFL and joining the New York Jets. Bob Sutton, who was New York’s defensive coordinator at the time, had been the head coach at Army during Kotwica’s playing days.
Kotwica didn’t come from a heavy special teams background, but soon worked his way up the ladder under longtime special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff, who retired after the 2012 season. Kotwica used his time in New York to learn the finer aspects of special teams play, and he hasn’t stopped learning since.
“He’ll come to us and ask, ‘How can I help you get better?’ That’s an awesome thing,” said punter Robert Malone, who played under Kotwica in New York and was released by the Redskins last week. “A lot of coaches have a lot of pride and they don’t get to that level, but he’s a very humble coach. And he’s willing to learn whatever it takes to help us.”
‘Sense of accountability’
Kotwica isn’t exactly a drill sergeant, players say, but there’s no confusion in what he says. First-year coach Jay Gruden said Kotwica “doesn’t beat around the bush.” Long snapper Nick Sundberg called it “brutal honesty.”
“I like that about him,” Sundberg said. “If I have a bad day, I want to hear about it. I don’t want things to be sugarcoated or anything like that. It’s not sugarcoated on Sundays. So if I need to get better, he tells me I need to get better.”
Kotwica demands precision and exact timing in every drill at every practice. Make a mistake while covering a punt return and he will work with you to fix it. Make the same mistake a second time and, in Jordan’s words, “you can tell.”
“I think players respect him a lot in that regard,” Gruden said. “There’s a sense of accountability amongst our players that has to be taught, and Coach Kotwica is a perfect guy to teach that.”
Keith Burns, once a star special teams player who was hand-picked by former coach Mike Shanahan, oversaw Washington’s dreadful special teams performance last season. Before that, Danny Smith steered the unit to mediocrity over eight years.
Sundberg said Kotwica “brings a lot to the table that we, I’ll just say, lacked last season.”
Whether it stems from his military background or everyday demeanor, Kotwica believes Redskins fans will see his fingerprint on special teams this season. The unit, which he has aptly dubbed “special forces,” will be more physical than in years past, he said. More organized. More disciplined. And, if all goes according to plan, more successful.
“I’ll tell you what, some of the schemes that he’s doing with us and stuff like that, I’m excited, man,” fullback Darrel Young said. “You’ll see guys out there giving a lot of effort. I can promise you that.”